Slapstick decadence is the dominant style at the Disney studios this summer, reaching all the way from Touchstone Pictures' action hit Con Air to the 35th Walt Disney animated feature, Hercules. It's a moviemaking mode that weds anything-for-a-laugh to anything-for-a-jolt, leaving imagination and authenticity in the lurch. Instead of creating a world that an audience can escape into, these movies presuppose a pseudo-hip TV frame of reference. And the action they stick into the frame makes a deliberate mishmash of a viewer's mental circuitry: Any response to what happens onscreen begins to seem appropriate.
When Steve Buscemi enters Con Air in a Hannibal Lecter getup, moviegoers react with the same laughter and applause as when Billy Crystal made his Lecter entrance for the Oscar show. A similar chaotic pandering permeates Hercules, in which the moviemakers underline every reference with a thick and not-so-magic marker. It's not enough that Paul Shafer be cast as Hermes, the winged messenger (it's actually a funny casting idea)--there also has to be a shot of him slamming the piano keys the way he does for David Letterman. The jokiness of the overblown, incoherent Con Air is so berserk and incessant that Touchstone might as well have tagged it Con Airplane!. It's a flailing attempt to whip some life into the barren genre of the techno-testosterone thriller. To some horrifying degree it works, even if you're never sure whether to laugh or groan at Nicolas Cage, a he-man so courtly he's a male Southern belle. But Hercules fries itself to a crisp, then mucks around in the ashes.
Despite logistics, labor, and expense that are "all on the screen," Hercules emerges as a tuckered-out, off-the-top-of-the-head extravaganza. What makes this desperate farce-spectacle so sad is that it's an outgrowth of the earned success of Aladdin, also from directing team John Musker and Ron Clements, one of the three or four mainstays of the Disney animation line. This team kicked off the company's mainstream resurgence with The Little Mermaid in 1989, which paved the way for a peak achievement by another Disney team in Beauty and the Beast (1991). Musker and Clements broke through artistically with Aladdin in 1992. They realized that Robin Williams' spieling genie, spouting show-biz gags from many ages, could serve as both the id and the teen spirit of their Arabian Nights adventure--and they smartly built their film around him.
Following the financial disappointments of Disney's numbing Pocahontas (1995) and the ambitious, botched The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules has been positioned not just as a crowd-pleaser but also a crowd-regainer. It's meant to restore the box-office momentum Musker and Clements first set in motion. Unlike Aladdin, Hercules is all patter, ranging from snappy to sappy. There's nothing to ground it except a tepid reworking of the life of a brawny demigod who learns that what makes a hero isn't "the size of his strength, but the strength of his heart"--at least, thus spake Zeus. (Or did he say the size of his heart? When Disney gods start hurling platitudes, better duck and cover.) Elements of every recent Disney hit, particularly the record-breaking The Lion King, pour into this movie's mix. Mt. Olympus functions like the regal cliffside in The Lion King. Hercules is Simba-esque: a boy who feels like an outcast and a misfit until he takes up his proper legacy. Once again a Disney hero gets guidance from the vision of his father and from comical sidekicks, primarily a pedagogical satyr named Philoctetes, or "Phil" (Danny DeVito). Once again a Disney hero gets thwarted by the epitome of evil, in this case Hades himself (James Woods).
In the traditional myth, Hercules was half-human from the start, a love child Zeus sires with an earthly woman. Zeus' wife Hera, always hostile to the products of Zeus' innumerable extramarital liaisons, took a special dislike to Hercules, whose Olympian genes gave him super strength. Hera tormented him with bouts of fury. He became known for exploding and doing the unthinkable, most spectacularly when he went on a blind homicidal rampage against his wife and their sons. Hercules' 12 labors (from cleaning the Augean stables to dog-napping three-headed Cerberus from Hades) were designed as penance for this atrocity. He embodied male rage and the frustration and regret that keep fueling it.
How simple is Disney's First Book of Mythology? Well, in this Hercules, he starts out as a full-fledged god, the son of Zeus and Hera. His nemesis here is Hades, not Hera. The lord of the underworld feels that Hercules is the only one who can block his path to cosmic domination. Hades' evil gremlins, Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwaite and Matt Frewer), dose him with their own "Grecian formula" and make him mortal. (He stays super-powerful because he doesn't drink to the last drop.)
It's understandable that the Disney filmmakers would take the sexual rivalry out of Hercules' origins. (Hunchback showed how confusing the subject of erotic enmity could get when treated in a G-cartoon format.) What's disappointing is their rendering of Hercules' character. He's merely a mildly confused good guy, unsure of why he feels lost on earth and then uncertain of how to get back to where he once belonged: Olympus.
Along the way to redemption, society reduces Hercules to a celebrity--the Greek equivalent of a sports star defeating an opposing team of monsters. (Those who witnessed Michael Jordan's valor in Game 5 of the NBA finals might not consider sports stardom a comedown.) If you're after a deeply humorous account of a hero's life, you'd do better with the chapter on Hercules in Edith Hamilton's Mythology--it's a masterpiece of informed drollery, studded with pointed comments, such as "Intelligence did not figure strongly in anything he did and was often conspicuously absent." Hamilton finds it amusing that the Greeks would love this brawny figure despite "his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead." Now, that would be a daring scene for Disney.
On TV specials and in magazine promos, the Disney team to a person--execs, animators, producers--have espoused a party line. They tell us that they didn't want to make this movie "academic," despite its status as the first Disney cartoon based on a classical myth. Sure enough, in the opening minutes Charlton Heston's senatorial tones give way to a gospel Greek chorus; they revolt against making the story sound like "some Greek tragedy" instead of the supposedly rollicking adventure we're about to see. Actually, what's "academic" about Hercules aren't the few remnants of the Greek legend left in it, but the tried-and-untrue Disney motifs strewn throughout. The Greek myths weren't meant for libraries--they were part of the popular art of their time, and up until the last part of the twentieth century, they've been part of the popular art of all time. It's the Disney brand of legendry that's grown tired.
The irreverence that Musker and Clements have made their specialty comes off as a restless, reckless tic. They lampoon Hercules' commercial marketing in the agora--they seem to think that their awareness of Disney-style exploitation excuses their practice of it. The filmmakers' rationalization rests on the clay feet of their hero. It's as if they're telling critics, "We're not doing what the hucksters in the film do, merchandising an icon of dumb valor; we're merchandising a man who, as our theme song says, is willing to sacrifice, endure pain, and 'Go the Distance.'" (Gee, wasn't that Stallone's goal in Rocky?) In this film, it's hard to distinguish self-criticism from self-promotion. Some of it is funny: I laughed when Pain (or was it Panic?) reported to Hades in Air-Herc sandals. But doesn't the gag about Hercules becoming an action figure merely sell the action figure in real life? (Disney's marketing partners in Hercules are Mattel, McDonald's, and Nestle's, which in Europe is marketing a Hercules Wunderkugel.) This movie's overstuffed bag of tricks falls apart because nothing in it is organic or interlocked--including that kicky chorus, crosshatched out of Dreamgirls and The Gospel at Colonus.
In the shape-changing genie in Aladdin, Musker and Clements hit on a character who could support an anarchic aesthetic and give it a theme--not "be all that you can be," but "be anything you want to be." And in Robin Williams, who could probably beat IBM's Deep Blue at a game of Trivial Pursuit, they had the ideal performer for an anachronistic spritz through mass entertainment. But at the center of Hercules is a lug who erodes into invisibility under a manic stream of pop consciousness.
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It's not voice actor Tate Donovan's fault: The script gives him nothing to play except befuddled manliness. In a new-style Disney cartoon like Hercules, the cartoonists and gag-men fritter away their energy, providing enough "in" humor to keep babysitters and parents awake for 90 minutes. As a subject, Hercules would have been better suited to the nuclear emotions of Ye Olde Disney. What could be more primal for growing boys and girls than the story of a man who doesn't know his own strength--whose valor is inseparable from temporary insanity? Hercules touches on this tangentially and briefly, when the hero is a gawky adolescent nicknamed "Jercules." But after that, it plunges into an unholy mix of sass and sanctimony. The moviemakers repeatedly mock the weak links in classic Disney--overly cozy forest creatures, ultracute, Tom Sawyer-like rascals. Where do they get off? At the inert core of this film rests the same old follow-your-dream stuff, done without any gusto or conviction.
There is some fizzy filigree in Hercules. The British theatrical artist and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who did the scarifying design and animation for Pink Floyd--The Wall, served as the film's production designer. He exerts an astringent influence on the conception of the monsters, the Fates, and Hades, who resembles his voice-actor, James Woods, but with jagged teeth and hellfire hair. (Scarfe has penned his own book, Hades: The Truth at Last.) The casting is on the mark--Rip Torn and Samantha Eggar as Zeus and Hera, Hal Holbrook and Barbara Barrie as Hercules' earthly parents--though the pace doesn't allow it to register fully. Susan Egan stands out as Hercules' bad-girl true love, Meg. The character cuts an original figure--both angular and curvy--and Egan tags even throwaway lines with such crack musical-comedy inflections that her banter grows seductive. Egan effortlessly glides into Meg's big number, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)," with the confidence of the lead singer in a Brill Building girl group; the song itself is wistfully catchy, a relief after the go-for-broke gospel numbers. Some other sounds and images stay pleasurably in the mind--such as the Fates gleefully cutting mortal coils, or Hades pointing towering dumb-cluck Titans in the right direction.
But there's more graffiti here than filigree: The frenetic activity and joke-mongering swamp the striking or affable moments. Hercules is split so many ways that you could say it has multiple personalities. Or none.
With the voices of Tate Donovan, James Woods, Susan Egan, and Danny DeVito. Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Bob Shaw, Donald McEnery, and Irene Mecchi. Directed by Musker and Clements. Opens Friday.